Monday, January 26, 2009

Cor Blimey Charlie!!

Who would have thought that a little piece of France would be lying hidden deep in Clapham. More specifically, at my dear, lovely friend Charlie's house.

Now wait, let me backtrack. Charlie is, to put it simply, a culinary genius (I know, I cultivate my friends well). The boy is wasted in a Managmenet Consultancy firm, where he does all sorts of clever, whizkid stuff wtih spreadsheets and sorting out ailing firms. Thankfully for his friends, though, he unleashes his real talent and passion in the kitchen at the weekends where, with an apron wound round his gentle giant frame (he is a 6'3" giant who dwarves us all), he regularly works his magic on a series of Sunday lunches. Poor lad, not sure if his motley crew of no good amigos aren't rather a wasted audience for his talents. I, however, am fully appreciative.

The Sunday in question is now a couple of weeks back, and I write having had the chance to digest my extremely generous and quite truly delicious portion of...oh, no, one sec, don't let me spoil the suspense, I'll get to the food later.

So, there I was, on one of my many Sunday mornings up in the big smoke, recovering from a monumental night out, during which I had somehow managed to lose my mobile phone in the bowels of my friend Looble's teeny tiny car (a whole nother story, but suffice to say her car has now been dubbed the Bermuda triangle of phones). This rather clever move was somewhat hampering my usually buzzing social life, and I was slightly perplexed as to how on earth I was going to dredge up memories of where exactly in Clapham Charlie's flat was hidden. I was a little panic-stricken at the thought of missing lunch, if I'm entirely honest with you. One of my trusty friends came to the rescue with his fancy iphone, and on ringing Charlie I learned that I needn't have worried, the original (already alarmingly late to my clockwork tum) lunchtime of 3pm had now been pushed back a little. Apparently I wasn't the only one suffering from post-Saturday night pains... it meant I could rock up at a more leisurely pace. I rang on the bell at 3.30pm, and was greeted by the warm, comforting waft of cheesy pastry, some little home-made rolls that the Chef had whipped up out of some pastry leftovers ('posh cheese on toast').

Appetite well and truly whetted, I settled in to catch up with a university friend, delighting in the pleasure of mouthwatering anticipation. Thankfully the real event was every bit as good as the (lengthy) anticipation (Charlie really knows how to drum up a feeding frenzy amongst even the most food ambivalent of guests - a category in which, you'll no doubt not need informing, I am not found), when at 4.30pm our tummies rumbled, the table was laid and the metaphorical drum rolled. Delicately, and with loving care, our Chef served:
  • Cassoulet - look, I know I may have slightly lost credibility, what with my neverending and continuous tendency to wax lyrical about the different food I'm lucky enough to sink my gnashers into (the nasty critic in me does sometimes make an appearance), but let me tell you, I'm not exaggerating when I say - I have never tasetd such a succulent medley of different meats. I carefully picked out, identified and verified with our maestro chef a full array of meats, including tiny, juicy sausages, rich, dark confit duck leg, nuggets of lambshoulder, pork rind and chunks of pork belly. Each medley was doused in a savoury meat sauce, with a couple of spoonfuls from the layer of juice-soaked breadcrumbs topping the whopping great Le Creuset casserole dish. The punch of the meat was tempered and mellowed slightly by the melting creaminess of small, white, haricot beans. Simply outstanding, especially when served with...

  • ...a young, spicy Watercress Salad dressed with a sharp, mustardy french dressing - the perfect punchy, simple sidekick to the rich cassoulet.
  • Treacley and golden, a darkly rich genuine Tarte Tatin, with large chunks of moist upturned apple over flakey, sticky pastry, soaked iwth its fingerlicking sticky juice. Brings a whole different meaning to this particular apple pastry, which can often be muscled in on by an awful imposter (think thin, insipid, crunchy 'apple' slices, and dry crusty pastry). Not so with this rendition, which did its name proud, perfectly served alongside a dollop of decadent clotted cream.

One lesson learned by our talented host, will no doubt have been 'never text one's guests with requests to bring 'interesting cheeses' when one's guests consist of a handful of cheeky comedians and acerbic actors'. Our 'Interesting Cheese' selection consisted of one mesh bag of mini wax-clad BabyBels...which was, obviously, the perfect end to the perfect meal.

Thanks Charlieboy. xx

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ice Queen: the UK in its frostiest finest

As promised, I did take some pics. Was rather amazed at how similar the frost last Saturday was to my beloved Christmas cake. It was that heavy! Sadly my photos never do the reality justice but hey ho, I strive to do my best nevertheless.

So 'English' looking - n'est-ce pas??

That's all folks!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thumbs down: a Poor Restaurant Review

And now for a barrage of overdue entries. One of the most frustrating things about being up in London for a week was that my internet access up there is dodgy at best. I tried to post that last entry at least twice.

Now safely installed (for a day) back in a crisply cold Surrey, looking out onto acres and acres of garden and fields coated in thick white frost (I’ll try and get a photo and upload this, it’s too beautiful for words), my internet works, and I’m cozying up indoors for a bit whilst I figure out what clothes will protect me from the bitter cold outside.

The ideal excuse to update on my second trip out to eat. One of Alan Yau’s many creations, Cha Cha Moon is on Ganton street, just off Carnaby Street.

I’ve been to this restaurant at least half a dozen times since its opening in May last year, and mostly regaled others with stories of wild enthusiasm. Sadly it looks like I never got round to reviewing it before though, as now it’s a completely different story. Nothing seemed to go right for them on this particular visit, and I’m left with a feeling of crashing disappointment and no desire ever to go back.

The first shock came whilst waiting in the (generally promising) ever-present queue to eat. When handed our menus I saw that the original ‘every dish at £3.50’ gimmick had obviously reached the end of its time, and all items had been adjusted accordingly. The original aim of this ploy had been to draw in the punters, a fantastic piece of promotional marketing, but one which, when kept up too long, makes regular goers complacent, trained, pavlov dog style, to expect super-affordable prices. This makes the eventual price adjustment a horrible shock to the system. Cha Cha Moon can no longer be nipped to for a 'ridiculously cheap, great meal’. Now dishes are up with the rest of the noodle places, not only is it no longer cheap, but it's also, as we were soon to find out, no longer great either. Things boded badly.

We were seated rapidly, there’s never a complaint of too long a wait here. However, my eating companion (Bro P) and I then sat for getting on for ten minutes before anyone so much as ventured near us (10 minutes being an exceptionally long time in noodle-land when dishes can often take less than 30 seconds to prepare). During this time I started to witness evidence of the decline of a previously slick and efficient restaurant: dishes headed to the wrong table; waiters checked and rechecked orders with each other; bumped into each other; and let plates waltz gaily round without an owner.
After several requests, we finally secured a waiter’s attention to place our order, before my observations became too depressing. He took our order, only for another waiter to appear 2 minutes later (clearly the one we were supposed to have in the first place). Not to worry, by this stage I was practically gnashing at the bit to be served some form of noodly nourishment – my lunchtime meal had been piddly and I was starving.

We waited.

And we waited.

Still I watched more confusion amongst the waiting staff. Finally a dish came out, and we watched it being offered to first one, then another diner, until he finally put the dish in front of me. And then - oh boy, this makes my digestive process halt dramatically in its tracks – he PICKED IT UP AGAIN, and said ‘oh, no, I’d better check, I don’t think it’s for you'. Whisking it out from underneath my poised chopsticks and dripping jaws, he took it away. No apology or explanation, nothing! Anyone who knows me well enough will know that this is probably up there with slamming a door in my face or throwing a beer down my back with offensive gestures.
This meant WAR.

Two minutes later the same dish was dumped in front of me with barely an explanation. By this time it wasn’t steaming hot, but I was ravenous, and so tucked in. Not only was it not steaming hot, but there were actually sections which were cold, it had been that long out of the kitchen embrace. Of course, I should have complained, but I was so terrified they'd whisk it away again that I crouched low over it, protecting it like a mother bear protects her cubs. It’s hardly relevant what it was or how it tasted – Singapore Char Kway Teow, thick noodles in quite a tasty mixed meat sauce if you're interested. But, with all the emotional upheaval involved in getting my hands on this thing, I wouldn't advise anyone to go through the same trauma.

Bro P unsnapped his chopsticks and tucked into my plate, as there was no sign of his meal, nor would there be for some time to come. In fact, when we were on the verge of polishing the dish off, there was still no sign, so we asked a waiter, and his Singapore Fried Noodle finally arrived, just as I was picking up the last few strands of noodles. His dish tasted fusty and of hot dogs, and not even close to the standard of my previous visits. Meanwhile two or three wrong dishes were shown past our table.

We paid (no tip), and left. Never to return again.

No service, late meals, constant waiter confusion, a false serving, a practically cold dish. And all without the super-cheap price tag we’ve now been trained to expect.

Serious thumbs down.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Raving Restaurant Review: my favourite London Curryhouse

It’s been absolutely donkey’s months since I’ve done any sort of restaurant reviewing as thrift and frugality has been the overriding theme.

So, in an unusual ‘throwing thrift to the wind’ gesture, when I arrived in London last Sunday night, I decided it was about time I ate out. And so I did. Two days in a row no less.

Numero Uno: 5* - HIGH recommendation

Now, before I get more entangled in my little tale, let me set the background on my relationship with Indian meals.

I am not a natural curry fan.

It’s the result of too many years of disgusting, cheap and terrible Indian meals whilst at uni, meals which tended to consist of £10 deals (1 curry, 1 beer, 1 case of chronic indigestion and a serious dose of self-loathing), during which us uni students tended to behave atrociously (naturally), get drunk, disorderly and ending the evening with the odd food fight.

Now, before I hear your sharp intake of breath that I could be so uncouth, let me make it clear right away, I wasn’t one of the ones throwing food – clearly to me that is the ultimate sin. But seeing curry splattered against the walls wasn’t terribly conducive to giving me a raging appetite for the spicy stuff.

This, coupled with making the mistake once of watching a TV programme entitled ‘The Top 10 Worst Restaurants in Britain’ (I know, don’t ask what possessed me), and witnessing what sort of tricks the Indian restaurant topping the list pulled on its unsuspecting punters (great big vats of ‘different’ curry sauces, into which washed off uneaten meat from previous customers’ dishes were unceremoniously dunked). It was toecurling, stomach-wrenching stuff.
And as a direct result about three years ago I was pretty much refusing to touch curry.

Cue my job out in Dubai, which couldn't have come at a more perfect time, to reinstate me with an appreciation for good indian food. No comparison. There you'll eat mostly southern indian food, a heavy slant towards the vegetarian. Clouds of delicately spiced potato mixture in potato dosa, mental lentils. Curry and I slowly rekindled a tentative love affair.

So you see, I’m possibly one of the most discerning British curry critics there is available to write. I am extraordinarily difficult to please. You might have noticed that this goes against my usual bounce-off-the-walls excitement and enthusiasm at eating out/being taken out, but there it is – I am curry critical.

So, it is with great pleasure, that I announce….
..drummmm rooooollll….. THE BEST curryhouse in London, bar none. Tayyabs, in London's East End, or Shoreditch, to be more precise. Widely tipped as exceptional, I’d first been invited by one of my bestest buds (Sam the Tea man, should you be interested) for his bday bash back in November. I couldn’t make it. At the time, apart from the fact I was missing the festivities and the chance to smother a best bud with birthday smooches, I wasn’t too too bothered about missing out on ‘yet another curry’.

Until, that is, all sorts of raving rants written about the merits of this mysterious Tayyabs starting creeping into my line of awareness, and I started to rather kick myself for the missed opportunity. London-town bound, therefore, I got StTM in on my plan for a Sunday curry sesh. By gum was I excited.

The very first thing you notice as you walk alongside the restaurant, tucked deep in the bowels of Shoreditch, is that it is veritably heaving with people. In spite of it being a Sunday evening, the tables were overflowing with happy customers, all noshing away. The door opens and the second thing you’ll notice is a delicious medley of scents of cumin, curry, tamarind and other spices I couldn't quite put my olfactory finger on. The queue to eat was snaking right round the restaurant. Hm. This boded mouthwateringly well.
We entertained ourselves admirably until, not long after – oh joy! – we were allocated our table. By this stage I was in such a paroxysm of hunger and excitement that I clean forgot how one is supposed to behave in a restaurant. Our poor, patient waiter had to deal with an overexcited, gibbering fool making orders (me, should that not be clear). As it turns out though, my choices were outstanding:

  • Spicy grilled lamb chops – miniature mouthfuls of succulent, juicy meat, dripping with a biting, spicy sauce. An excellent appetite whetter. Although, frankly speaking, it would be a restrained restaurant-goer whose appetite wasn’t already whetted by the sights and smells of dishes gliding past.
  • Lamb & Lentil curry – what was so brilliant about this, in comparison to most curries I’ve eaten before, is that the lamb was in modest, bite-sized pieces, rather than great big walloping hunks (most offputting). Tender meat surrounded by more-ish, comforting daal (lentils), with a gentle kick to it which nudges you out of getting dangerously comfortable. A real spirit-lifter of a dish.
  • Aubergine & Lentil – you’d expect this just to be a variation on the above, substituting the lamb out for the aubergine, but let me assure you that this wasn’t at all the case. Still with the same ‘gwon-gizza-hug’ element of lentils, threaded through with melting strips of garlicky aubergine. Aubergine, when slowly cooked, has a remarkable ability to absorb smoky flavours which surround it. This dish packed a serious garlic punch, yet another mechanism which made each diner reach back again and again for ‘just another spoonful’ (I was mortified when, at the end of the meal, I realized that for quite some minutes our waiter had been patiently waiting to remove our dishes, only waiting the vulture to finish her scavaging. Ahem.)
  • Saag Aloo – soft, delicate green spinach, tender, garlic infused potatoes. Together. Seriously, what more could you want from a dish? This particular dish has the potential to become heavy and leaden. Tayyabs’ rendition was light as a feather, and not too filling.
The ideal amount between three, generous but not overly so. The meal was rounded off perfectly with a mango, pistachio or yoghurt ice-lolly. We agreed collectively that this was just what our over-spiced mouths were in need of. As a difficult to please critic, this ‘un gets all my rarely allocated curry points.

Go. Go, go, go! You won't regret it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Happy New Year!!!

A hat tip to Noble Pig, who has chivvied me into blog action after a woeful time away from my keyboard - apparently blogging is good for your health. I need to get me some of that.

Two weeks I've been down with the lurgy, that's two whole weeks of my life wasted in bed-ridden hours, days and days of no real senses (taste or smell, sob!), temperatures, fevers, blocked sinuses, exploding heads. It was HIDEOUS!

But yesterday, two days into this brand spanking new year, I woke to my first day of a clear head - I could breathe. And oh boy was it good. So I spent most of the morning revelling in this fact, skipping and dancing round my room to a song which undoubtedly would severely lower my kudos amongst my friends, but which nevertheless makes me feel unbelievably positive. Oh dear, it's playing again...

Then I spent the rest of the day chopping veg, assembling hams, salamis, chicken legs, and Christmas leftovers as a whole host of friends descended from London to help us with our remaining food. Bowl after bowl of steaming and redemptive chicken and vegetable broth (Ma Pea being, as I may have mentioned before, the Queen of soups), spiced homemade date chutney with baked ham, crunchy, cleansing celery and carrot, and the richer creamier Italian cheeses left over from our time in Italy. All in all a thoroughly good day.

I wonder if I'm the only one to have slightly embarrassing songs which I jig away to in the kitchen when compiling whatever the dish of the day is, I'm sure I'm not. Somehow I think when a dish is made with love and happiness, corny as it sounds, it can be tasted!

What song and dish would be your favourite way to get your year off to a riproaring start?

Friday, January 2, 2009

500 words, 5 senses, La Cantineta della Nonna (Granny's Canteen), Tuscany

There’s a hurried and slightly frantic rush to enter the restaurant before the usual 2pm lunch cutoff. The door slams behind our family of four, scooting us indoors. We hold our collective breath, hoping there would be room at the inn. We needn’t have worried – a far cry from the dour-faced welcome of an English eatery, here a space is quickly made, a table obligingly cleared and with several cheerful shouts of ‘Buon giorno’ we are welcomed with open-armed generosity as only Italians know how.

We are ushered through a dark hobbit tunnel, to the left side of which the rowdy clatter and bang of a steamy kitchen can be heard. Immediately after the kitchen, the tunnel opens out into the bright lights of the second dining room, revealing an Italian crowd gathered round eight or so tables of anything between two to eight occupants: a jolly soap opera scene. Tables of families are immersed in conversation, tucking into hearty meals, sharing deep red wines, or listening intently as waiters enthusiastically describe each separate gem on the menu with dramatic gesticulations and opulent rolling of musical vowels.

Settling into our table and gaining a sense of our surroundings I look around, noting deeply etched faces on all sides, expressions ready carved for an emotional prompt. There is the lively hum of voices without pause, bubbling like a cheerful brook. The occasional melodramatic outburst of an excited voice rises staccato above the rest, accompanied by much waving of hands. Faces are kind, smiling, laughter lines framing chestnut brown eyes and dark curls atop heads. Clothes are the autumnal palette of the Tuscan painter, rich, comforting and cozy.

An endless succession of inspiring plates of food are borne aloft as the waiters waltz past, each trailing tantalizing scents of garlic, herbs, roast meat. English mouths water shamelessly in anticipation of the first Italian meal in months, and eyes widen in glee as we turn our full attention to the important and not unenjoyable task of menu perusal. With all five senses pulled in opposing directions, it’s difficult to keep concentration for long, but I eventually choose the gnocchi con cavalo nero. We decide to share a couple of roast dishes between four – in Italy it is perilously easy to overdo it. The order is taken with many cries of appreciation and recommendation, ‘Gnocchi? Fantastico! Excelente! Buenisimo!’

My attention is caught by free entertainment provided by one family’s little toddler repeatedly tottering off on expedition back through the connecting tunnel, an intrepid and determined explorer. The entire troupe of waiters are at his beck and call: playing games, making faces, and pandering to the little tyke’s every command.

Steaming platefuls of savoury delights soon arrive, mouthfuls of featherlight gnocchi topped in a delicately flavoured, fine sliced cavalo nero sauce. Roast rabbit leg follows – rosemary, salt and garlic juice is licked off fingers just as pork ribs arrive, charred but succulent, mopping up garlicky swiss chard side. Platefuls of delightful treasure troves.